Legislators this week are expressing outrage over the death of 4-year-old Eric Dean and called for new laws to prevent future child protection failures.
A story in Sunday’s Star Tribune described how Pope County in western Minnesota received 15 maltreatment reports about Eric before he died in February 2013. Many of those reports came from Eric’s day-care providers and teachers, who warned the county’s child-protection unit that his stepmother was likely responsible for his recurring bite marks and bruises, but watched as the abuse continued.
“There should be hearings on this,” said Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, chairwoman of the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee. “The whole thing was shocking.”
Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, chairwoman of the Senate Health, Human Services and Housing Committee, said she would support calls for hearings into how to improve child protection. She said what happened to Eric showed “there must be something terribly flawed in the system.”
Sen. Torrey Westrom, a Republican who represents the area where Eric lived, said he’s heard from numerous constituents who are angry about how the case was handled. He said he will work with other legislators to draft laws in the upcoming session that he hopes will better protect vulnerable children.
“We need to prevent this from ever happening again,” said Westrom, who is running for Congress in Minnesota’s Seventh District.
One of his focuses will be to require that counties give more scrutiny to repeated abuse reports, Westrom said. Currently, the Department of Human Services (DHS) recommends that counties not consider prior abuse reports when deciding how to handle new ones that come in.
“That defies common sense,” Westrom said.
Erin Sullivan Sutton, DHS’s assistant commissioner for children and family services, said the agency will work with legislators on a proposal that will allow child-protection workers to review prior history when new abuse reports are made.
She called Eric’s death “a tragedy that should not have happened.”
Sullivan Sutton said her agency will also “thoroughly review the death” and share its findings with Pope County staff.
Westrom also wants to make sure that counties share abuse reports with law enforcement. State law requires that, but records show that Starbuck police were notified of only one of Eric’s abuse reports before he was killed.
Sharing that information, he said, “in itself may have avoided this outcome.”
In a statement Wednesday, Pope County Coordinator Jim Thoreen said the county regrets “that we couldn’t do more.”
“Because of his case, our social workers and management staff continue to re-examine the way we handle cases like his,” Thoreen said. “But we also know this: Abusive caregivers, uncooperative family members and investigations after the fact all combine to make our work to protect vulnerable children a difficult, heartbreaking and very often imperfect job. Even facing that unpleasant reality, we hope to serve abused children better in the future than we were able to serve Eric Dean.”
Thoreen said he hoped the Star Tribune report “is a bellwether for changes that need to be implemented.”
Pope County board chair Cody Rogahn echoed the need to re-evaluate the child protection system.
“This isn’t just a Pope County issue,” he said. “This is a statewide, even a nationwide issue.”
While Liebling’s committee oversees DHS, she said another committee chaired by Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, likely has oversight of child-protection issues. Liebling said that if Mullery did not want to call for a hearing on the issue, she would.
Mullery could not be reached for comment Wednesday.